Wednesday, May 6, 2015

In Character: Vincent D’Onofrio

Vincent D’Onofrio is a character actor’s character actor. Frequently altering his voice, appearance and general mannerisms from role to role, D’Onofrio has been one of acting’s best chameleons for decades. Make-up can help with physical change, sure. As can elaborate costumes. But when they’re at their best, D’Onofrio’s transformations cut to the bone. He’s a notoriously dedicated Method actor who never shies from going all in. I hope you enjoy this trip into D’Onofrio’s dark world.


Five Essential Roles
Men in Black (1997)
Edgar
Again, Rick Baker and David LeRoy Anderson’s Oscar-winning make-up greatly enhance D’Onofrio’s performance in Men in Black, but the emotion comes from the actor. The way Edgar chokes and mumbles on his words, or barely manages to walk every step – that’s all D’Onofrio. Plus, I love that people are still realizing that Gomer Pyle from Full Metal Jacket is the main alien in Men in Black.

Claire Dolan (1998)
Elton
I could talk about Lodge Kerrigan’s work for pages (and probably should here someday), but for now I want to highlight D’Onofrio’s subtle and conflicting work as Elton in Claire Dolan. The film is about its title character (played fearlessly by the late Katrin Cartlidge), a prostitute trying to escape from her polished New York pimp. Elton is a taxi driver she meets by chance and begins to have genuine feelings for.

D’Onofrio’s supporting performance draws out the best in Cartlidge’s own work. He pushes her to fully reveal herself, not in a physical way, but rather to expose her emotional nakedness. In addition to their stellar work together, D’Onofrio has an isolated scene in this film in which he’s robbed at gun point. The sequence is absolutely terrifying, and it contains some of the finest acting D’Onofrio has done. He plays the scene so convincingly, you almost feel your life flashing before your eyes.

The Cell (2000)
Carl Stargher
Carl Stargher is a murderous psychopath who needs to be stopped at all costs. But by creating a world in which doctors are able to go into Carl’s mind, The Cell does something many similarly-themed movies are afraid of, which is offer a reason to empathize with its killer. Obviously nothing justifies Carl’s lust for sadomasochistic homicide, but exposing Carl as nothing more than a severely damaged man-child is a very audacious feat. Naturally, D’Onofrio fits perfectly into the role, inhabiting the broken inner-child within Carl, while also convincing us that Carl is capable of horrible acts.

It’s my favorite incarnation of D’Onofrio as a serial killer, a character type he plays so well. (For an added bonus, check out his chilling turn in Jennifer Lynch’s Chained.)

The Salton Sea (2002)
Pooh Bear
The Salton Sea is a drug crime thriller that was sadly overlooked by audiences. Val Kilmer gives a great lead turn as a meth head who snitches for the cops, but the film is really alive when D’Onofrio is on screen. Pooh Bear is a batshit crazy dealer who earned his namesake after losing his nose from snorting too much meth. Much of the terror of this performance is rooted in the fact that Pooh Bear is completely unpredictable. There’s a scene, for example, in which he threatens to have a feral animal chew Kilmer’s dick off, unless Kilmer’s character offers up information. Watching this scene, you genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen. But you simply can’t take your eyes off D’Onofrio; jumping around excitedly, wheezing through every breath (a result of his lost appendage). Unhinged and manic, a perfect fit in D’Onofrio’s wheelhouse.

Daredevil (2015)
Wilson Fisk
It took until the end of Episode 4 for me to fully appreciate D’Onofrio’s work in Daredevil. Watching his Wilson Fisk beat a goon halfway to death, then decapitate him by repeatedly slamming his head with a car door, I realized that not only is Marvel going for something very different here (thanks to Netflix’s fuckitall encouragement), but D’Onofrio is also making his own sort of announcement. As Fisk steps away from his headless victim and walks toward the camera, the thunderous music swells up and Fisk gasps for breath like a tired dog. D’Onofrio stops center frame and makes a mute proclamation louder than any monologue could. “You thought I was done?” he silently dares. “You thought I had nothing left to say?” To say D’Onofrio is back is a mistake. As Fisk, he proves he never really left.

Wild Card
Homicide: Life on the Street (1997)
Season 6 Episode 7 – The Subway
John Lange
Remember that flashback in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs? The one where Mel Gibson has a final moment with his wife, who is pinned between a truck and a tree? She’s not in any pain, but the moment the medics move the truck, she’ll die. Yeah, well, Shyamalan clearly lifted that from this episode of Homicide, in which Vincent D’Onofrio finds himself pinned between a Baltimore Metro car and the metro track. But instead of spending his last few moments of life in a reflective, saddened state, D’Onofrio’s John Lange rants about his fatal misfortune. It’s a damn fine episode, one almost dominated exclusively by D’Onofrio and Andre Braugher’s tense conversation. “Swing away,” this is not.

The Best of the Best
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Pvt. Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence
Could it be anything else? And I’ll admit, it’s easy to get distracted by the impressive physicality of this role. After all, it is damn near unheard of for a young actor to gain 70 pounds for his first major film role. By doing that, D’Onofrio risked type casting himself as The Overweight Young Man. But to D’Onofrio, gaining the weight was a necessity. He had to turn Leonard Lawrence into Gomer Pyle. He had to make him the joke, the clown, the freak show. In doing so, D’Onofrio gave every character in Full Metal Jacket, namely, of course, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), a reason to berate Leonard (keep in mind, we’re dealing with sadistic basic training reasoning here).

So the question is: by the time we arrive at Leonard’s fate, do you think he is justified in what he does to Hartman? Like Carl in The Cell and Bob in Chained, Full Metal Jacket dares us to empathize with a killer who turned cold, in part, due to societal circumstance. None of those films aim to justify murder, but they do try to explain where it can come from. That’s a lot of emotional angst to weigh, especially if you’re a young actor inhabiting your first major film role. But there’s an undeniable authenticity to Leonard’s inner turmoil that makes Full Metal Jacket so terrifying. It’s one of the finest debut performances I can recall. Watching D’Onofrio in this film, it feels like we’re watching an already seasoned professional. Apparently that was a great bit of career foreshadowing.

Other Notable Roles
As Orson Welles in Ed Wood (though Maurice LaMarche dubbed over D’Onofrio’s voice)
Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
Mystic Pizza (1988)
Signs of Life (1989)
Dying Young (1991)
JFK (1991)
The Player (1992)
Ed Wood (1994)
Strange Days (1995)
Feeling Minnesota (1996)
The Newton Boys (1998)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Happy Accidents (2000)
Steal This Movie (2000)
Chelsea Walls (2001)
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011)
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)
Thumbsucker (2005)
The Break-Up (2006)
Chained (2012)
Escape Plan (2013)
The Judge (2014)
Jurassic World (2015)


34 comments:

  1. I fucking love Vincent d'Onofrio. The man is awesome as Gomer Pyle is my favorite performance and certainly a chilling one towards the end of the first half. I loved him in The Salton Sea, he was a fucking riot as I also loved him in The Cell and Men in Black.

    Some of my favorite performances from are in a couple of very little scene films such as the dad in Thumbsucker and as the priest in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys where he brought so much more to those characters.

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    1. So true about Thumbsucker and Altar Boys, he really did elevate those roles. Dude always makes movies better. Love him.

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  2. *sees the Men in Black entry* omg he's that guy? Woahhh never would've guessed.
    *sees the Full Metal Jacket entry* OH MY GOD HE'S THAT GUY?!! HOW DID I MISS THAT?!!

    I guess I'm a d'Onofrio fan.

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    1. YES! Exactly! I love when these posts help people realize that guy is actually THAT GUY :)

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  3. Great post Alex, to me it seems that D'onofrinos career us just starting. Im looking forward to watching future great performances from thus reliable actor

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    1. Thanks for suggesting him! He really is a damn reliable actor. Never seen him deliver a bad performance.

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  4. Great list. He is absolutely fantastic in Full Metal Jacket. Nothing else could have topped this list. I'm really happy you liked him in Daredevil though. I was surprisingly impressed with that show. I like most of the Marvel movies, but none of them have come close to Daredevil when it comes to story and acting. And Vincent D'Onofrio easily steals the show. He could have just given another over the top comic book villain performance and people would have probably been fine with it, but he actually gave that character some humanity. I actually felt kind of sad for him near the end of the season when someone close to him, not gonna spoil who, dies. I can't wait for season 2 of that show.

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    1. I mean look, I don't hate on comic book movies (or the people who dig them), because hey, fair enough. But they just aren't for me. But Daredevil sounded different and I'm so glad I gave it a chance. I wish the Marvel features had that much balls, but it's all about money after all. Still, D’Onofrio is a fucking beast on that show. Thanks for the push on this post!

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  5. Love this guy. I really need to find the time to finish Daredevil, I'm still trying to get through The Wire. I also didn't realize he was going to be in Jurassic World. Nice!

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    1. Ohhh how are you liking The Wire? It's the best to me.

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  6. There was a point in time when I was completely OBSESSED with this guy. It was right after I saw The Cell and I was just spellbound with how much raw intensity he brought to the role. There are times when I still think he was Oscar robbed. Like, that movie was nuts, but he anchored it so brilliantly. GREAT work highlighting his work.

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    1. Thanks buddy! He's soooo damn good in The Cell. Such a creep. And I agree, this guy should have a few noms under his belt, no question.

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  7. Loved the mention of the Homicide episode! That's one of the best, and PBS even did a documentary just about that episode.

    I actually just watched episode 4 of Daredevil last night, and he owns the screen as Wilson Fisk. I'm scared to even see what he does next.

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    1. Ohh I want to see that PBS doc. Sounds very interesting. Ep 4 of Daredevil was my favorite so far, because that scene... wow. Thanks for the comment!

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  8. Unfortunately, I haven't seen a lot of his filmography. His performance in Men In Black is always mind-blowing for appearance alone, even if it is such a zany, fun alien flick. Other than seeing Law and Order: Criminal Intent commercials, I didn't know how varied and unrecognizable his range is in so many diverse roles. Cool list

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    1. Thanks Katy! Definitely see Full Metal Jacket if you have a chance. It's so damn good.

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  9. No no no, there is no way that Gomer Pyle was his debut performance. How is that even possible? That's like at an Emily Watson level for best fucking debut performance of all time. God, that's truly amazing.

    I really need to see The Cell. Also, is it bad that I've never watched any of the Men in Black films? They've just never really interested me, even though I love Tommy Lee Jones and used to like Will Smith (when he actually had interesting roles). I think I'll have to watch them soon. Great post!

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    1. Thanks! Isn't that insane that FMJ was his first role? Such strong and confident work. The Cell is a real trip. Heavy shit, but really unique.

      The first Men in Black is fun, but the second is a wash. Didn't bother with the third. But the first one is definitely worth it.

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  10. He absolutely loses himself in the character. I think the first thing I ever saw him in was Adventures in Babysitting. I then saw Full Metal Jacket soon after. It wasn't until years later that I found out the same guy played the overweight, picked on recruit and "Thor" the buff mechanic in movies that came out the same year. Here's a side by side picture: http://www.ew.com/sites/default/files/i/2012/10/10/Vincent-D-Onofrio.jpg

    A performance I never see mentioned, probably because it was a small, indie movie, is in The Whole Wide World (1996). He played author Robert E. Howard, who wrote the Conan books. It was an early role for Renee Zellweger as the woman who encounters him.

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    1. And what's crazy is that he appeared in Adventures in Babysitting 7 months after he wrapped Full Metal Jacket. What an impressive transformation.

      I did come across The Whole Wide World when researching this post, and it sounded interesting. Might have to check that one out soon.

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  11. I thought he should have had Roberts role in the Judge...

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    1. Would've made for a better movie, for sure.

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  12. I love D'onofrio, but have a small problem with him. He was so amazing in Full Metal Jacket that every time I see his his face, the first thing that pops into my head is "There's Private Pyle!" Loved in lots of other stuff, The Cell, Men in Black, and Law and Order, in particular. So I know he's a gifted actor, but that image you used from FMJ is precisely the one that's made an indelible mark on my brain. I don't know if there's ever been a more perfect union between an actor and a role.

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    1. That does happen sometimes. It's a gift and a curse, you know? But I think he does a good job of emotionally and physically jumping into most of his characters. He's a really gifted chameleon. But yeah, never better than in FMJ.

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  13. He's just such a solid actor. You always know to expect something great from him. I got a total kick when re-watching Adventures in Babysitting a few years back that her played the Thor mechanic.

    I took a class in college called Baltimore in Film and when we discussed Homicide we watched that episode. It was really damn great. I would like to watch a lot more of that show but I feel like I already started with the best.

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    1. You mean The Wire? I found Homicide through The Wire, and yeah, tough act to follow. But I suppose any show pales in comparison to The Wire. But as far as network TV police procedurals go, I haven't seen better than Homicide.

      Love Vince D as Thor!

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  14. I never saw Full Metal Jacket *hides* and I'm still on 1x03 of Daredevil *hides again* but he was terrific in The Cell, it's such an underrated film. I feel like if they made it nowadays they wouldn't top the visual side and surreal ambiance of this flick

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    1. I think you'd appreciate the fuckupedness of Full Metal Jacket. Great movie, and D’Onofrio is tops in it. But yeah, he's great in The Cell as well. What a trip that movie is.

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  15. Wonderful choices! He's SO good in Full Metal Jacket, and I completely forgot he was in Claire Dolan. The Salton Sea is on my watchlist, as is Daredevil. Looking forward to those two.

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    1. Good stuff man. Happy to hear that you've seen Claire Dolan, more people need to talk about Kerrigan’s films!

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  16. Wasn't he also in Household Saints with Lilli Taylor...I was hopping that was going to make at least the Honorable Mention part of your list

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    1. Haven't seen that one but it sounds really interesting. I'll have to check it out.

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  17. Amazing actor really... Check out also his performances in "Good Luck!" (1996) - so funny - and in "Salt on our skin" - such a romantic role. And in Household Saints of course...

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    1. Going to check all those out ASAP. Thanks for the recommendations!

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